VENEZUELA: Challenges for the workers' movement

Issue 

Federico Fuentes, Valencia

Speaking of the nine-month-long struggle against the Aseven (KR) soft-drink company, one of the company's workers Luis Flugo told Green Left Weekly, "we have been on the streets, we have been the victims of so many acts of corruption. Many trade unions have gone through the same experience. But the workers have supported us in forming a new [trade union] leadership, because they want change — a radical change — so that we are the new administrators of the collective contract that is coming up, because the one we have now is useless. And the trade union we had was useless."

Many other workers present at the meeting space of the National Union of Workers, Carabobo regional section (UNT-Carabobo) for a monthly meeting in August had similar stories. Barreto Nestor, a worker at Rudaveca, described their struggle to form a new union. "I have only been involved in the trade union movement for a few months but it has been a grand experience", he said, adding that "there wasn't a union in the factory when we formed this union".

Nestor explained that "we say we are living in a real democracy, but there are still parts of the old democracy that remain. To form the union, we have to do it clandestinely and together, under the eye of the firm, hiding from the bosses because if they find us, although they are not [legally] able to fire us, they do. This is part of the reality we live in in Venezuela."

The day after they formed the union, the workers were out on the street after the boss refused to negotiate with them. The workers organised a picket-line, which was attacked by armed gangs organised by the bosses. Together with the UNT and other unions, the workers responded with peaceful tactics and won their demands and back pay within one-and-a-half days.

New confidence

Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution has created a resurgence in the confidence of workers to fight back and reclaim what is theirs. Previously, the trade union movement in Venezuela was dominated by the corrupt bureaucratic leadership of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV). As many of the workers explained, the CTV has worked shoulder to shoulder with the bosses, treading on the rights of the workers.

Two important events helped to reshape the terrain of working-class struggle. Flugo explained, "If you do a survey of all the companies, in all of them are new groups of [unionists] that have sprouted, because they have won referendums, because the new laws [introduced by President Hugo Chavez's government] protect them. That is what has helped take the blindfold off and see that [workers] can win their rights." The new laws, which enable workers to hold referendums in their workplace to decide who will oversee their collective contract, has opened the space for a new layer of militants to rise up from the ranks.

All the unionists present at the UNT-Carabobo meeting space said they are very new to the trade union movement. Nestor said that the changes have meant that "a light has appeared in front of the workers".

In many areas of private industry, there are problems with the functioning of the new laws. Many of the bosses and the old unions are not accustomed to having to deal with workers wanting to negotiate a better deal, and in many cases they have refused to talk to union representatives. Workers in this situation have been forced to strike for the right to bargain their collective contract. In the case of Aseven (KR), the old unions illegally held referendums that didn't comply with the laws and constitution. "They would give workers a sheet to sign, pretending it was something different and when [the workers] were not careful, they would put a stamp on it saying they had voted and use that to relegitimise themselves", said Rafael Gutierrez.

Nestor explained, "We still don't say that everything is perfect. There are many of the old structures that have not been destroyed, because as we know, a revolution does not happen from one day to the next ... look at the nine-month struggle [at Aseven (KR)]. If we look at the law it shouldn't last that long. There are things we need to improve but that is where we are at, and we continue to struggle."

The second change has come from the experiences of the workers themselves in these struggles. A decisive turning point was the bosses' lock-out, which began in December 2002. Many of the bosses shut down factories, including the state-owned company that controls Venezuela's oil reserves (PDVSA), in order to create an economic crisis that could bring down the Chavez government. In response, workers moved in and began to take control of their factories, including restarting the oil and electrical sectors, which were crucial to breaking the back of the bosses' lockout. After the CTV-backed lockout was defeated, militant unionists formed the UNT as a new federation.

Co-management

Through battle, many workers began to realise their power and their ability to play a role in running companies. With the initiation of co-management in a number of state-owned enterprises, as well as some closed down factories that have been taken over by workers and then expropriated under workers' control, a discussion about co-management is beginning among workers. "We got together so that the workers themselves will have benefits; we had five years without benefits, working Monday to Monday. Now we have advanced in terms of [understanding] the laws, and the workers want to take over the factory for themselves, and I have to talk to them, holding them back so that all of us do it democratically and legally so that there are not mass firings and so that it is planned", said Flugo.

According to Barreto Nestor, "Unless this capitalist system is transcended, the workers, regardless of the best collective contract signed, will not achieve our goals. We need to transcend capitalism, and co-management is part of that. It is giving power to the workers, power to us."

Challenges

Despite some of the issues faced, the UNT has been able to make many advances against the bosses and the corrupt CTV in a short period of time. The struggle has taught workers many lessons, particular those new to the trade union arena. However, internally the UNT still faces some challenges. At an Andean regional meeting of the UNT in early July to prepare for the UNT national conference, national coordinator Marcela Maspeiro noted one key problem they face: There are still many unions not in the UNT and even more workers not in the unions. An even bigger challenge is how to relate to the over 50% of workers who are in the informal sector, and how the UNT can help to organise this sector.

Part of the problem of drawing in more unions is the fact that since the UNT's inception, there have been battles against some bureaucratic tendencies within the UNT itself — union leaders who got involved in the UNT when they realised that the CTV was a sinking ship. One front for this battle is in SUTISS, the union that covers the strategic state-owned steel plant SIDOR. The current leadership of SUTISS, some of whom have positions in the national leadership of the UNT, are holding back internal elections for their own union.

Workers in the PDVSA have also talked of bureaucratic practices once again taking hold within the three different unions that cover this important sector. The fact that there are three unions, and talk of a fourth, within PDVSA also shows another issue that the workers' movement faces. At the August regional meeting of the UNT in Carabobo, it was clear that there were a number of very intense disputes for coverage within workplaces between unions who are all affiliated to the UNT.

In general, a big challenge is to break the influence of some of the old culture of bureaucratism and squabbling for positions. The other problem is the connection of the workers' movement, particularly the UNT, with other sectors of Venezuelan society. It was noticeable that the only discussions that took place at the regional meeting involved current industrial disputes and the internal functions of the UNT. No mention was made of any broader struggles or events in the community.

Another example is the lack of UNT presence at marches organised by other sectors, such as the march of campesinos from the countryside to the presidential palace on July 11. The march was directed against imperialism and the assassination of peasant leaders and for agrarian revolution — the war against the latifundista (large landowners), for unity from below, and for socialism, but the campesinos marched alone.

This problem has also been reflected in some of the issues faced with co-management. How to ensure that co-management does not simply become a change from private to collective control of the company wealth, but rather is socialised and put to the use of the entire community is something that has to be seriously debated in the movement. Already issues such as the disbanding of the union in INVEPAL, the paper factory that was expropriated and placed under workers' control and is being run as a joint state-workers cooperative, has raised some questions as to the real aim of co-management. As more and more factories begin the process of co-management, the challenge will be to expand the focus of the movement and begin to integrate the community in these matters.

From Green Left Weekly, September 28, 2005.

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